Whatever else you do, don't mention your previous school

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Your new staff don't want to hear how you changed the world at your last place.

Nor do they expect you to have all the answers, says Mike Fielding ONE OF the most difficult tasks for a new headteacher is to stop being a deputy. The urge to get involved and to focus on the detail of work you know best is very strong during those initial months of a first headship.

Hence, if you are a head who had responsibility as a deputy for several tasks in your previous school, you will be tempted to take more interest in those issues and, in doing so, demonstrate your expertise. This is understandable. Taking over as head is a daunting business. Suddenly the buck stops at your door and large numbers of people are waiting to see whether you can handle it or not. So, concentrating on the known can seem an effective survival strategy.

However, there are dangers. There is probably someone in your new school with a brief for your area of expertise and, like you in your previous post, will welcome support but not interference.

The second danger is that you won't have time. The demands on a new head are multifarious and however early you start or late you leave work, there will almost certainly be things you intended to do left undone. Getting too involved in particular issues will just increase the stress.

And third, it's not your job. Staff and students are looking for a head; they don't want another deputy. They want someone who can see the whole picture (however fuzzily at first) and also attend to their many needs.

Which is where another danger lies. New heads are asked a variety of questions - many of them trivial - during their first few months in school. This is because staff and students are anxious to get to know as much as they can about this new person. They want to know where you stand on a range of issues, to be sure they are not going to do the wrong thing.

The temptation is to think you must have an answer for everyone; that referral to someone else or an admission of ignorance will somehow undermine your authority. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Staff will respect someone who says: "I don't know, perhaps you'd better ask X". Better still, they will like someone who says: "I'm not sure - what do you think?" That approach not only demonstrates confidence in your colleague, it also recognises that the person posing the question probably had an answer but needed some reassurance before putting it into action.

The more you give answers to their questions, the more staff will assume that they have to go on asking. Of course, there are many matters on which the head must decide, but one target for the early stages in a new school should be to ensure staff understand what is required of them.

A third pitfall awaiting new heads is holding up your previous school as an ideal. Obviously, you want to translate all those things which previously worked well into your new environment. This is particularly true of innovations or procedures for which you were responsible as a deputy.

While it is true that wheels should not be re-invented unnecessarily and schools should - and do - learn from one another, as a new head you must understand that, as far as staff are concerned, every idea you propose to import from your old school will seem like a criticism of them and is likely to invite the suggestion that you should return to where you obviously felt more comfortable.

For you, as a new head, the first months in post are difficult. They are also rich in opportunity. Everything seems possible and the frustrations of being in someone else's shadow, however benevolent, are removed. There will be a deep reservoir of goodwill from the staff but, to take advantage of it, you must quickly accept the responsibilities of the new post and consign to memory the habits and practices of your former status.

* Mike Fielding was formerly principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, North Devon

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